The child clung to his leg, hiding most of herself behind him.
"Lily, this is my friend, Ella," he said to the girl, brushing her hair from her eyes.
The girl stared up at her and said nothing.
"Ella, this is my daughter Lily." She could feel the intensity of his gaze, as though he were searching her face for some kind of reassurance. To her surprise, she found herself crouching down low, looking the child in the eye.
"Hi, Lily. How are you?" The child stared back in silence.
"She's shy. Give her a while," he said.
She followed him and the child into the house, studying the backs of their heads as she went, noting the identical hair colour.
"Let me give you the cook's tour," he said, turning to smile over a shoulder.
"Sure." She felt comfortably strange in his house. It was like they had never lost contact. She followed him, admiring what he had done with the place.
They walked down a long hallway, bedrooms off either side, closed doors blocking her from the undisclosed worlds within. He led her down to the back of the house, into a large open plan room, a kitchen off to the side. The room was awash with subtle lamplight and she could feel her tenseness slowly seeping away. The house was beautiful but it was the view that undid her.
Through open bi-folds stood a generous deck. She rested her helmet down on a side table and unzipped her jacket, and shucked it off. She lay it over the back of the couch and crossed the room while he disappeared into the kitchen. She stood at the edge of the doorway and looked out over the deck where the sea rolled in toward them. The beach was their own private yard. She closed her eyes for a moment and inhaled the salt scented ocean breeze swirling about in the air.
"Quite the view," she commented softly, opening her eyes. Something niggled inside her. Perhaps a small pang of envy at how well he had done for himself. She considered the clothes she stood in, some gear in her bags on the bike and a few ugly pieces of furniture locked up in storage, now miles away. She felt suddenly misplaced and deficient before him.
"Drink?" he asked. She turned toward him, and noticed Lily surveying her from the couch, cradling a can of lemon squash.
"Soft drink would be great," she said.
"You don't want a beer?"
"Maybe later," she bluffed, crossing the room. She watched as he poured her a drink and then cracked the lid off a stubby.
"Fifteen minutes to bed, Lil," he called to the girl who responded with silence again.
He pulled out a stool for her and she sat. He leaned up against the counter beside her and stared at her for just a moment too long.
"Want to tell me about it?" she asked, taking a sip of her drink, glancing back at the girl.
"Let me get her settled. We can go outside and talk properly," he said, setting his beer on the bench.
He crossed the room and scooped the girl into his arms. She squealed with delight all the way back down the hall, her protests finally muted by the closing of her bedroom door.
Alone at the bench, Ella toyed with her glass. She eyed his beer on the bench, a subtle sweat breaking out on the glass. Just one little sip couldn't hurt. She tried to remember her last drink but could only recall the number of days it had been in between. 343 days. She rolled the number around in her head like a prayer that might block pending disaster.
Her memory flooded with good times and old times and times when the two of them thought that time was the one thing they would have together . She eyed the tall slender bottle like it, too, were an old lover and as the seconds ticked by she could feel herself falling under their spell all over again. She stared at the bottle, contemplating the deed. He walked back in, and dropped onto the stool beside her.
"Sure you don't want one?" he asked.
She looked up into his grey green eyes and wondered what ever went wrong.
"Sure," she heard herself say.
"Maybe just one,"